A Contempt for Ingratiation.

The conspiracy of Claudius Civilis

Rembrandt’s The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis

When Rembrandt was invited to redeem his reputation by the Burgher Masters of Amsterdam and contribute a painting for the interior of their new Town Hall they expected something restrained, classical and above all respectable.  What they got was deformity, barbarianism, ugliness, a thickly painted depiction of a rabble of rebels, the all too human Claudius Civilis.  An utterly brilliant painting.

He had every incentive to conform and was quite capable of painting what he knew the Burghers wanted but this was not Rembrandt’s style.  If you were to ask “What drives the greatest art?” what we see in this image is “The contempt for Ingratiation”.  Rembrandt had lost everything, his reputation, his wife, his house and his money but he wasn’t prepared to to paint anything inferior or to sell out to people who hadn’t the vision to recognise brilliance when it stared them in the face.

Inspirational I think.

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LEST WE FORGET

KÄTHE KOLLWITZ

Self Portrait

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War it seems appropriate to remember a truly amazing female artist, Käthe Kollwitz, who depicted the turbulent events of late 19th and early 20th century Germany through the eyes of a mother.

The subject for her early works The Weaver’s Revolt 1899 and The Peasants’ War 1908 highlights her empathy for the less fortunate, expressed through the graphic means of drawing, etching, lithography and woodcut in which she embraced the victims of poverty, hunger, and war.

Riot

Traumatised during the whole of the First World War she was unable to complete a single work, her silence a token of her pacifism and a reflection of her deep sadness at the loss of her younger son Peter in the conflict.  “Where do all the women who have watched so carefully over the lives of their beloved ones get the heroism to face the canon” she asked?

It was only some time after the war that Kollwitz approached the theme directly with her poster Never Again War! 1924.

Never again War

Käthe Kollwitz who trained at women’s art schools both in Munich and Berlin rose above the repressions of male-dominated artistic and social institutions, elevating the importance of the intimate, personal world in her works and focused on the downtrodden and outcasts of society.

From many wounds

She was dedicated to her art in a time that was intolerant of women and it is a great testament to her talent and her quiet, insistence that she received acclaim during her own lifetime.  Whilst personal and intimate her works had great political resonance, resulting in their removal from the museums by the Nazis and her expulsion from the Prussian Academy.  Kollwitz, nevertheless, never flinched from depicting the suffering of those oppressed by conflict and her defiant denial of ‘beauty’ continued to confront society’s injustices.

That her work is trembling full of emotion is self-evident; that she was an artist of the people is precisely apposite.  She reflected the unequal times in which she lived and her prints offer an eloquent and often searing account of the human condition, and the tragedy of war.

Kollwitz devoted her life’s work to the depiction of the suffering of humanity and, most significantly, the plight of women.  Her mastery over her chosen medium together with the subject matter – what mother could fail to be moved by that – endows her work with extra poignancy and lends exceptional force to her works even today, and a meaning which transcends the terrible events of her times.

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Visiting her small exhibition at The South Bank Centre back in 1995 was one of the few occasions when I was reduced to tears, it was there that I really understood the words of Anatoly Lunarcharsky, the Russian People’s Commissar for Culture in 1927 who said “She aims at an immediate effect, so that at the very first glance, one’s heart is wrung, tears choking the voice”.

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PALACES OF PEACE – Crystal Palace 1851 and World Trade Centre 1973 – How History Repeats Itself

                                                           Crystal Palace ironwork b&w 2

                                                                                 Crystal Palace 1851

 The twins were unusually animated on that bright spring morning

“Shall I see the Queen?” asked Samantha.

“Shall I see the Queen’s husband?” said Charles, not to be outdone.

“For goodness sake, stop hopping about or you’ll see nothing”, said Nanny.

“Shall I see the Queen?” Samantha repeated.

“Shall I see the Queen’s husband?” They went on and on.

“Shall I see the Crystal Palace?  Shall I see peace on earth?”

“I heard Papa say that the Exhibition meant peace on earth and goodwill to men”, piped in Charles.

“That’s as may be but there’ll be no goodwill towards me, or you, if your Papa is kept waiting in his carriage. 

 At last everyone was ready and they set off, Papa busily telling them that it was the Queen’s husband, Prince Albert’s idea to invite all the nations of the earth to London, and how this Great Exhibition would put an end to wars and conflict between countries through trade, and how Britain would spread peace throughout the world.  But the twins paid more attention to the great crowds that lined the roads cheering.  Over the top of thousands of people you could just see the Crystal Palace rising up, which after early showers reflected the May sun off the still-wet glass surfaces and made them sparkle.  It all looked unusually light and airy compared to the buildings they passed on their way, almost like it was floating over that part of South London.

 Once they got closer the children could see what looked like a great glass and iron, tiered wedding cake standing in a large green field.  Inside the building there were banks and beds of flowers in a rainbow of the loveliest colours, and there were tiers and banks of people whose clothes were of lovely colours too, so that everywhere was colour, on the ground and in delicate galleries.  And there were palm trees, and an organ sending a wandering thread of music through everything, and in the centre there was a platform carpeted in red with a huge sapphire blue canopy above what Papa said was the dais.     

Great elm trees grew behind it, indoors, and in front of it stood an intricate eight foot tall crystal fountain.  Twittering sparrows darted about the elms, Charles lifted his head and watched the fluffy white clouds drifting slowly over a blue, blue sky – they were moving and changing shape, and creating the impression that it was the Crystal Palace that was moving and the clouds that were staying still.  Looking up for a long time he was enjoying the sensation that the clouds were swirling around inside the vast curved dome that covered the palace.

“Don’t keep craning your neck up Charles.  Don’t slouch Samantha.  And do not chatter.”  Words which soon broke the spell and brought them down out of their own land of day-dreams.     

 Suddenly trumpets sounded, everyone stood up and the organ started to play ‘God Save the Queen’, and a choir sang the words.  It sounded small and lost because the palace was so big, but as soon as it was over there was noise enough because everybody began to cheer and to wave handkerchiefs and papers.  Then, at last, they could see Queen Victoria.  She was dressed in pink and silver and she was walking with her husband, Prince Albert.  She held a little boy by the hand – a little boy dressed like a Scottish Highlander – and the Prince held a little girl’s hand.  They all went up onto the platform which Papa called the dais, and there they stood for a while, all four of them, with the people cheering enthusiastically and the fountain leaping in front of them, and the elm trees behind them where the sparrows were hiding.

Queen Vic in pink

 Prince Albert made a speech and then presented a copy of the illustrated catalogue of items in the exhibition to his wife.  The Queen, Prince Albert and their group then went round the whole building looking at the huge variety of exhibits before returning to the dais and officially announcing the exhibition open to the public.                                   

 Then it was time to go home.  As they left they could see vast numbers of people still queuing outside the building – they were told that these people would have to wait four hours before getting inside.  Samantha and Charles now felt very tired and they were only half aware of their father talking as they dozed in the carriage on the way back home. 

 “A splendid occasion.”  He was saying.  “The world has never seen the like.  Nine hundred thousand square feet of glass.  The Prince is justified if ever a man was.”

“But there were no black men, no brown men, no yellow men, no red men”, whined Charles.

“My dear boy”, said Papa, “you weren’t expecting that were you?”

“I was expecting to see all the nations of the earth in peace and goodwill.”

“Well, so far as I’m concerned, the fewer foreigners we see over here the better.  The best guarantee of peace on earth is British trade.  The Great Exhibition will promote British industry and innovation.  Glory to God in the highest and on earth room for the expansion of the steam engine and of British exports in general.” 

 His conclusion upset the children who believed all the words that had been spoken about peace and goodwill.  They started to cry but the effort was too great and they soon fell asleep.  A strange disappointment filled them as they lay in their beds that night.  Later Charles would wake up from a troubled sleep in panic; he had dreamed that he could see again that great glass and metal confection melting like ice cream, whilst firemen rushed around with hoses.  He awoke Samantha, for whom else would he turn to in the dark of the night?  They huddled together in her bed trying to dispel their fears.  As they lay there they weren’t to know that within two years Britain would be at war with Russia in the Crimea.  In six years there would be a civilian rebellion in India which had to be quashed, and in nine years Britain’s industry and innovation had turned to the building of iron warships.  In just fifty years a bitter struggle with the Dutch in Africa would start the Boer war and a conflict in that continent that would run and run.  They were not to know either that eventually their beautiful Crystal Palace would be destroyed by fire.

                                                              WTC

                                                                       World Trade Centre 1973

 One bright spring afternoon as the twins, Sam and Charlie, settled down in front of the telly to watch something that was making their father very excited.  It was a documentary programme – something they would usually avoid like the plague.  But this was a documentary devoted to a new building in New York City in the United States of America.  The commentator was rambling on about the World Trade Centre bringing together businesses and government agencies involved in foreign trade.  That it was a ‘one-stop trade information hub’ where ‘an international business person would be offered the full range of services such as market research, trade shows, exhibition space, business services, trade education, group trade missions’…………….. Blah. Blah. Blah, thought the twins.

 The commentator went on eagerly quoting figures.  Charles was bored and took no notice but he liked the pictures of spandrel plates welded to the columns in the fabrication shop; he was fascinated by immigrant navvies digging out the Tower’s supports with shovels and hands deep down in New York mud; he was spell-bound by other workmen balancing high up in the air like acrobats amid steel-plate girders.

Samantha was impressed by the size of the thing, one hundred and ten stories, one thousand, three hundred and fifty three feel tall, occupied by fifty thousand people.  Even more interesting to both of them was that these buildings would be called the ‘Twin Towers’, surely that meant that it all had something to do with them?

These twin towers were part of a complex of seven building in Lower Manhattan, the interviewer explained, and had been designed by the architect Minoru Yamasaki.  “You must be very proud of your design, Mr. Yamasaki?” he asked.

“Yes, yes, I am.  But what I am mostly pleased with is that these buildings are a physical expression of the universal effort of men to seek and achieve world peace.”

“Why do you say that, Mr. Yamasaki?”

“Well now,” he replied, “this building will be a monument to world peace, because I believe that world trade means world peace.”

“In what way would you hope that this building will be regarded in the future?” asked the interviewer.

“It is my sincere wish that in some way this building will point to all the best aspirations of man to live in peace together.” Minoru Yamasaki answered.

Over the top of thousands of people you could see the first of the two towers rising up, which, after early morning showers, reflected the Spring sunshine off the still-wet glass surfaces, making them sparkle.  The columns, finished with a silver-coloured aluminium alloy made the towers appear from afar to have no windows at all.  It was a structure that filled your vision then got smaller as you looked upwards; it was unusually light and airy and it seemed to be enveloped by and absorbed into the fluffy white clouds which drifted slowly by in the blue, blue sky.

Building the WTC

 The camera zoomed in to show tiers and banks of people; firemen with their oddly shaped helmets and dark clothing contrasted with the soldiers and sailors who stood erect in their blue, black, khaki and white uniforms; and generals with their medals glinting in the sun and ladies in their fine clothes.  So that everywhere was colour, on the ground and in the banked tiers of the audience; and there was a brass band sending a thread of music through the whole congregation.  In the centre of all this there was a platform carpeted in red, that the excited commentator said was called a dais.

Suddenly trumpets sounded, everyone stood up and the band started to play stirring music and then a choir sang an anthem called the Star Spangled Banner.  As it played all the navvies and firemen removed their hard hats, engineers, designers, architects and invited dignitaries put their hands on their hearts and joined in.  All was quiet for a short moment, then there was noise enough as everybody began to cheer and to wave handkerchiefs and papers.

A great cheer went round the enclosed space and a dark-haired man, who Samantha thought looked a bit like the proboscis monkeys they had seen in the Popeye cartoons, and his mousy wife went up onto the platform which was called the dais, and President Nixon – for that is who it was – stood as the people cheered like mad and waved their handkerchiefs and little flags that had stars and stripes on them.  Suddenly it grew silent and he started to speak into a bank of microphones.

“On this day the fourth of April nineteen seventy three, we are joined together to celebrate the New York Port Authority whose vision it was to erect this building. 

We celebrate human innovation….  And we celebrate this great country of ours that is leading the way in technology, manufacture and farming……

I am proud to cut this ribbon and to commend and praise the building and the ideas behind it.  The World Trade Centre is a living symbol of man’s dedication to world peace …. A representation of man’s belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the co-operation of men and, through that, his ability to find greatness.”

Everyone was clapping, smiling and whooping while thousands and thousands of small pieces of paper – which the commentator called ‘ticker tape’, filled the air.  It was a very pretty sight.  The brass band started to play a march and everyone watched as the monkey and his mouse got into their limousine and left that place.                              

Then a sudden coldness made Samantha shiver and a cold shudder ran down her back.  “What’s wrong Sam? Asked dad as the programme ended with a view from high over the top of the crowds showing all the people slowly leaving.  “A splendid occasion.” Dad continued.  “The world has never seen the like.  Minoru Yamasaki is justified if ever a man was.  Amazing for a foreigner!  But then he was educated in America.  Now the best guarantee of peace on earth is trade, and with the prospect of limitless oil to lubricate the wheels of trade nothing can stop us.  Let ‘em try.”

Oh what a strange sense of foreboding filled the children as they went upstairs to bed that night.  Later Sam would wake up from a troubled sleep in a panic.  She had dreamt that she could see that great, sharp-edged glass and steel edifice blurring and melting like an ice cream as people ran away from it in terror.  Her moaning awoke Charlie and they huddled together in bed trying to dispel their fears.  Hadn’t this all happened before?  Didn’t it all end badly? 

 

COGNITIVE BIAS or BRAINWASHING?

 

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A cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgement, whereby inferences of other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion.

It occurs when someone makes up their reality through a lens held up by another.  This can result in clinical anxiety disorders and elevated level of anxiety vulnerability.  At one extreme this can mean a sinister attempt at brain-washing, but at the other, it can be a genuine misrepresentation through ignorance or an innocent wish to create a magical experience to children like the tooth fairy or Father Christmas.

Cognitive biases can be controlled by encouraging individuals to use controlled processing compared to automatic processing (unquestioning acceptance of information), we expect children to realise there is no Father Christmas when they observe their parents creeping into their bedrooms with their presents.  In other words, they must learn to make their own judgements by observing through their own first-hand experience and an open-minded quest for truth

Could an example of cognitive bias be illustrated by religious organisations who tell their members (or followers) how to live their lives according to arbitrary rules dictated to them by an omnipresent, omniscient, all powerful deity?

 

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CUT IT OUT WITH THE CUT-OUTS

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition, Tate Modern, London, Britain - 14 Apr 2014

We were promised proof that Henri Matisse was “one of the most innovative painters of the twentieth century” but instead all we got was large-scale graphic designs.  I was disappointed by this exhibition, to hear all the hype this show was going to set the record straight about Henri Matisse but I came away with the impression that this show had been put together purely to pander to popular tastes.

I can only assume that together Nicholas Cullinan, Flavia Frigeri and Nicholas Serota decided they wanted something pretty, colourful and exuberant on their walls that demanded no thought whatever to appreciate.  So they assembled this over-blown tribute to an artist who can never hold a candle to, yes you know what I’m going to say, to Pablo Picasso.

I’d like to ask the organising team, how they think that this show can add anything to our knowledge of the great developments in contemporary art in the 20th century?  I humbly suggest that the answer is, it doesn’t.  It is pretty, it is colourful and it is a great testament to the artistic imperative to create in the face of overwhelming odds.  He did produce some great paintings early on and his influence on the young Picasso must be acknowledged.  But I am afraid Tate Modern has let the old man down and done nothing to position him as one of the great innovators of the twentieth century.

As I walked around the Tate Modern one name kept popping into my mind, and when I tell you who I know you’ll gasp, but the truth is Clarise Cliff decorated early twentieth century pottery with similar exuberance and used a palette of brave colour combinations too, channelling the Jazz age in much the same way as old Henri did at that time.  To produce work like this when you are old and infirm is a truly great achievement, I can agree, but when it comes to new ways of depicting human life and delving into the great issues that plagued Europe at such a dark time in its history then I’m afraid these crafty cut-outs don’t even come near.  They just don’t do it for me.

THE INHUMAN CONDITION

entire Cyborg

I have been thinking about cyborgs recently.  Are we that far from the science fiction notion of becoming half human, half machine? A pacemaker for my dodgy ticker, well that’s mainstream these days.  Maybe I’ll chuck out the glasses and get some new eyes that can automatically enhance the information  sent to my brain and adjust to different light qualities?  Or a chip that can hear colours transforming the frequency of light to that of sound and hear it through bone conduction.  A new hip perhaps, (a hip chip?) with a chip in it that makes it possible to ride a bike for longer periods over harsher terrain?  New hands to replace useless arthritic claws, strong enough to open the devilish packaging now mandatory for food producers, or impervious to extreme temperatures but delicate enough to enable me to incise into my etching plates?  At what stage do these enhancements change us from human to cyborg, or in fact make us posthuman, even transhuman?

The term cyborg is a little outdated as these days we can readily accept the intrusion of technology into our bodies, seeing those springy appendages of Oscar Pretorius as something to envy – only his legs mind you. The definition of a cyborg used to be a body which was dependant on something electronic or mechanical to exist, nowadays I cannot envision existing without my electronic devises, I feel diminished without them.

It seems that if the technology is good for the person and doesn’t threaten his/her humanity then it is acceptable but if it helps to make a person achieve beyond their human capabilities then this is perceived as threatening. Man as superman belongs in the comics or with Nietzsche, not our everyday lives.  The ethical choice is that I have a right to enhance and you have a right not to enhance.  It’s your body, your right to enhance as long as it doesn’t harm anyone, but there must be no coercion to enhance, or not to.

The tendency is to think that technology outside ourselves, when  it can be turned on or off,  is acceptable.  I find myself sometimes making cyborgian assumptions, like the phantom rumble in my pocket where the phone usually resides even when it’s not there. Trying to scroll down a paper page. Searching my brain like it was a Google Search. Trying to pinch zoom the view like it was a screen when I just wanted to see a sign somewhere far away.  So I suppose that most of us can be termed everyday cyborgs – when we wake up in the morning the first thing we do is check our mobiles, the device is the life-blood of our social reality, they symbiotically exchange information with the world.  We don’t notice the device, we achieve social union using technology. We meld into the computer and become part of it.

And then, if our bodies are beyond helping what about our brains?  Can our brains keep on living even after our body dies? Sounds like science fiction to me, but celebrated theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking recently suggested that technology could make it possible.  “I think the brain is like a programme in the mind, which is like a computer,” Hawking said, “so it’s theoretically possible to copy the brain on to a computer and to provide a form of life after death.”

Some people are actively working to develop technology that would permit the migration of brain functions into a computer. Russian multi-millionaire Dmitry Itskov, for one, hopes someday to upload the contents of a brain into a life-like exoskeleton as part of his 2045 Initiative.  And a separate research group, called the Brain Preservation Foundation is working to develop a process to preserve the brain along with its memories, emotions and consciousness, called chemical fixation and plastic embedding, the process involves converting the brain into plastic, carving it up into tiny slices, and then reconstructing its three-dimensional structure in a computer. This then offers the possibility of a machine which is dependant on human consciousness to exist – a reversal of our initial definition of a cyborg yet no less valid or frightening.  I must ask, is this an attractive promise of possible life after death?

But are we not moving ever closer towards some kind of symbiotic relationship with the technological other?  The technological construct now enters the flesh in unprecedented degrees of intrusiveness and the nature of the human-technological interaction has shifted towards a blurring of the boundaries between genders, races and species, following the trend of the contemporary inhuman condition.  The technological other today – a mere assemblage of circuitry and feedback loops – functions in the realm of an egalitarian blurring of differences. Has cyborg tendencies inspired a philosophy that seeks to make us so superhuman that we will not die?

VISIBLE, ALL TOO VISIBLE

crossreferences7

The visible has been and still remains the principle human source of information about the world.  When we can see we can orientate ourselves.  Even perceptions coming from other senses are often translated into visual terms, when we say “I see” we really mean “I understand”, and the sensation of vertigo originates in the ear but is experienced as a visual spatial confusion.

Thanks to the visible we recognise space as the precondition for physical existence.  The visible brings the world to us.  But at the same time it reminds us ceaselessly that it is a world in which we risk to be lost.  The visible with its space also takes the world away from us.  Nothing is more two-faced.

The visible implies an eye, it is the stuff of the relation between seen and seer.  Yet the seer, when human, is conscious of what the eye cannot and will never see because of time and distance.  The visible both includes us because we can see and excludes us because we cannot be everywhere.  The visible consists of the seen which, even when it is threatening, confirms our existence, and of the unseen which defies that existence.  The desire to see something like the sun setting behind the horizon, the stars on a clear night or heat haze in the dessert,  has a deep ontological basis.

To this human ambiguity of the visible one then has to add the visual experience of absence, whereby we no longer see what we saw.  We face a disappearance.  And a struggle ensues to prevent what has disappeared, what has become invisible, falling into the negation of the unseen, defying our existence.  Thus, the visible produces faith in the reality of the invisible and provokes the development of an inner eye which retains and assembles and arranges, as if in an interior, as if what has been seen may be forever partly protected against an ambush of space, which is absence.

Both life itself and the visible owe their existence to light.  Neither the optical explanation of visual perception nor the evolutionist theory of the slow, hazardous development of the eye in response to the stimulus of light dissolve the enigma that at a certain moment appearances were revealed as appearances.

Theories and observations of visual perception have been the main source of inspiration for computer vision (also called machine vision, or computational vision). Special hardware structures and software algorithms provide machines with the capability to interpret the images coming from a camera or a sensor. Artificial Visual Perception has long been used in the computer industry and is now entering the domains of automotive and robotics.

Areas of artificial intelligence deal with autonomous planning or deliberation for robotical systems to navigate through an environment. A detailed understanding of these environments is required to navigate through them. Information about the environment could be provided by a computer vision system, acting as a vision sensor and providing high-level information about the environment and the robot.

Artificial intelligence and computer vision share other topics such as pattern recognition and learning techniques. Consequently, computer vision is sometimes seen as a part of the artificial intelligence field or the computer science field in general.